A few months ago, we had lunch with a friend who is a management consultant. He arrived at the restaurant raving about the fantastic experience he’d just had at the passport office on Hudson Street in lower Manhattan, where he’d gone for a need-it-by-tomorrow expedited passport. Having booked an appointment by phone, he arrived to have his application materials checked by a greeter (lest his papers be out of order, which might hold up others later in the process), who then handed him a number and sent him to a waiting room. Five minutes later, his number was called, and he was asked to hand in his paperwork. Then he was on his way; he had his new passport the next day. There was nothing that McKinsey, Accenture, or any other workflow consultant could have done to improve his experience.
It turns out our consulting friend isn’t the only one singing the passport office’s praises. The Hudson Street branch gets 4.5 stars on Yelp, accompanied by mostly glowing commentary (recent reviews: “absolutely fantastic,” “five mother effin stars”). This will surely come as a surprise to those who view the U.S. government as a refuge for pointless regulation, lazy bureaucrats, and layers of inefficiency: A State Department–run passport office sits at the vanguard of workplace effectiveness.
The praise for the Hudson Street office stands in sharp contrast to Yelpers’ takes on, for example, New York City DMV offices or the passport agency in Los Angeles. (New York processes the most passport applications in the country; LA—with a three-star rating—is second.) New York City’s post offices rarely get as many as two stars from Yelpers. Elsewhere, it seems, federal, state, and local government agencies are earning their bad reputation.
Part of the government’s image problem may come from the fact that many of the functions it performs put it in opposition to their clients: You don’t expect service with a smile when you’re handcuffed in the back of a cop car or when confronting social workers in a child custody case or asking the Internal Revenue Service why it chose to audit you. But often the government is in the business of providing a pleasant, efficient experience. Michael Hoffman, director of the New York passport office, told us that 99 percent of the time, his office’s objective is to give customers exactly what they want.
So why do so many people have terrible experiences with even the more customer-oriented branches of our government? We tend to chalk it up to the pernicious effects of government bureaucracy, which we assume smothers creativity and innovation, especially when there are rules, regulations, and standardization involved. But as the praise for the Hudson Street office shows, not all government customer service is terrible. Which raises another question: Why do some government offices perform well and others poorly, even when they’re providing the same services and working with comparable resources?
It’s actually a question that plagues for-profit enterprises as well. Private companies often exhibit wide variability in efficiency across branches, even when they’re making exactly the same thing with identical technology. Think of cement, a product that economists love because cement is cement is cement; it’s made more or less the same way everywhere, and yet some manufacturers are more efficient at producing it than others. Why would there be variation in productivity? For decades, the economics profession has tried to understand why these differences persist. If you’re the low-productivity concrete plant, why not just go and figure out what they’re doing over at your more successful competitor? And if you’re the high-productivity plant, why not buy out your less-efficient neighbor and give the operation a makeover?
If only it were so simple. There’s an emerging body of research that chalks up these productivity gaps to the all-too-human ways that different companies (and divisions within a single organization) are managed. The fact that management matters—a lot—shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has ever worked under a good manager and also a bad one: Good managers coach, listen, support, and make their employees feel like they’re making progress. Bad ones don’t—often in uniquely horrible ways. And if this is true at for-profit companies, why wouldn’t it be true for branches of the government?
The management matters view certainly fits with our experiences and conversations with Hoffman and his higher-ups at the State Department Executive Office who oversee passport operations. Jim Herman, the executive director for the Bureau of Consular Affairs within the State Department, knew the ins and outs of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, and seemingly the entire contents of Harvard Business Review. He certainly talks the talk of a corporate operations chief, despite having spent his career in consular services.
As for Hoffman, he faces the same combination of constraints that many middle managers in the corporate world do. He has to deal with some amount of standardization. For example, to manage the assignment of customers to interviewers, he uses the queuing software that’s uniform across the agency, since the State Department manages procurement on behalf of all offices. (Hoffman says he could in theory petition to buy his own, but he’d need a very compelling reason.) Similarly, the New York office can’t start making up its own idiosyncratic criteria for passport applicant background checks. (Our friend’s one complaint with his experience was that he had to make a special trip to provide a picture that met the passport office’s specifications; the office supervisor can’t waive such rules even if they boost Yelp ratings.)